The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Development of the Religious Instinct in the Child

by Elinor A. Welldon.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 90-96

[Elinor A. Welldon was Head Mistress of the Kindergarten Department at The Ladies' College, Cheltenham. "In 1881 Miss Welldon came to Cheltenham as head of the Kindergarten. Hers was one of the first appointments made by the Croydon Kindergarten Company." (from a book on D. Beale.) Later she was Government Inspectress of Schools in the Transvaal. She co-wrote the book The Kindergarten System Explained. ]

The few remarks I shall venture to make are brief, but I trust they may be suggestive to some interested in this all-important subject.

At the outset, let me state my conviction, that much of the present unfaith, much of the indifference to religion which exists now, is due to the well-intentioned but unwise early religious teaching given to our children. The parent's and the educator's first work is to awaken the religious instinct in the child: by that I mean the stretching out of the child's soul after the Divine "God." I think this is done in two ways:--

I. By the indirect religious and moral influences brought to bear on the child.
II. By the direct moral and religious training the child receives.

(1.) The first and most important indirect religious influence brought to bear on the child is that of the mother's own attitude of mind and soul towards God, even before the birth of the child, and during the early years of its life. The young child is a strange imitative being: its tastes and habits are a reflex of the person's it is with, and this is wonderfully true as regards its religious life.

(2.) The second indirect influence is the way the mother regards her child. Does she look upon the life entrusted to her as a gift, as Frobel and Martin Luther did, to be one day given back to God? Does she watch the young life as it unfolds reverently and prayerfully, as seeking thereby to know more of the mind and will of God concerning herself and her child? Or is the child looked upon as a charming plaything,--a proud possession to augment parental importance? In fact, does she realise the words of the catechism and regard the child as God's rather than her own? It is not difficult to trace the effect these opposite views would have.

(3.) Another strong indirect influence is the love which binds mother and child together. The love is at first an unconscious resting or sense of oneness and harmony: true type of the soul's unconscious rest in God. But then the child only becomes really conscious of its mother's love when it misses that love for a time, to find it again: so it is with the soul and God. When this love between mother and child is a perfect one, unsullied by selfishness, then it is a powerful influence in awakening later love towards the heavenly parent, God the "All-Father."

(4.) Another indirect influence is the parents' prayers and Bible-reading and study: their definite acts of worship, which the young child is often a witness to, which speak to the child of communion held by its mother and father with the unseen "God," whom they always address not only in words, but by reverence of mien and gesture. Rosmine speaks very strongly on this point: he says, "During the first periods of life the child is incapable of himself performing religious acts: it is the office of the parents to perform them for him;" and again, when he reminds us how far more forcible expressive gesture is than language over the young child. Miss [Elizabeth Palmer] Peabody, in her article on "Religious Nurture," says on this subject, "You should talk about God as little as possible, and limit yourself carefully to regulating moral manifestations, leading children to act kindly and generously and truthfully."

(5.) Another very strong indirect influence I take to be, the reverent treatment and care, on the part of the parents, of all life, plant, animal, and human: such treatment will awaken a sense of the sacredness of life, and will lead the child to seek out the source of all life --God.

Plato in his Laws says (book V.), "Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence." Such means as these, indirect and unconscious as they are, are very real in awakening the first impulse after the higher life. About the second or third year more direct means must be used, and these I consider are,--

II. The definite moral and religious training we give our children.

Character training must be our chief aim now,--by that I mean forming in our children right moral habits of thought and action. The first and most important habit is that of obedience.

(1.) To a young child, its mother's voice ought to be what the voice of conscience us to the adult,--the voice of God speaking to man. The love and dependence of the child on its mother leads it to trust her commands and to accept them unhesitatingly; and, further, a true mother graduates the demands she makes on her child's obedience and on the kind of obedience required. She understands that when obedience is real and true, it must not be slavish, but willing and free,--an offering of the reason and of the will to a higher and a more perfect will. Such a habit of obedience will make obedience to God more possible. Just as the little child loved to listen to and to obey its mother's voice, so will the child when older love to listen to and to obey the voice of God, speaking in and through His works in nature and in His dealings with man. God's voice will be that of an all-wise, all-loving Father, whose commands are not grievous but joyous.

(2.) Trustfulness, which leads to truthfulness, is a second most important habit to train; and here the ways the child's first deliberate act of naughtiness, its first wilful disobedience is treated, is most important. This is a crisis in the child's moral and religious life: much depends on the view the mother takes of the wrongful act. Her effort must be to make the child keenly alive to the fact, that, in spite of her grief and sorrow for what has happened, her love remains unchanged: the grief is at her child's fall. Her great desire is for his re-establishment and amendment, which will require effort on his part of straightforwardness and uprightness of conduct. To a child thus treated, the mother has made it possible to feel rightly about sin as that which separates from God, and grieves and pains the loving heart of the All-Father, as an act which cannot be atoned for by a word, but by amendment of life, requiring effort and self-discipline.

(3.) Another important habit to train in our children is that of work, which implies a habit of self-control and self-discipline on the one hand, and of self-activity on the other. Here, example is far more forcible than precept. A child brought up to realise that work is a law of life, a necessity of human nature, because it is that which makes man akin to God, is raised to a higher conception of God and His relation to man. A young child responds quickly and readily to the idea of having a special work set it which he or she alone can do, and then it is not difficult to set up an ideal to aim at, a goal to be attained by effort. And what is this but making it possible for the child to understand that true religion is an effort of the soul to find out God, "to acquaint itself with God and be at peace"? (Job xxii.21.)

But, further, all this training, invaluable as it is, is incomplete: there is yet more to be done by direct and definite religious teaching.

(1.) By a wise and judicious use of folk-lore, those beautiful old fairy tales, which are the tales of heroes, or of allegories, as a means of awakening the imaginative faculty; sufficient stress, I am sure, is not laid on the true education of the imagination as a basis for religious faith: a right training of the imagination gives the power to apprehend the unseen. And what is faith, but that act of the soul by which we enter within the veil, endure as seeing Him who is invisible, and accept the evidence of things not seen. Felix Adler, in "His Moral Instructions," is very suggestive here. [The Moral Instruction of Children] Next will come the use of Bible stories to teach the child something about (1) God, His nature and His work. The stories should be most carefully selected, and the one fact each is intended to emphasise should be made prominent: such as (a) God's power in the story of the deliverance of Egypt, and crossing the Red Sea; (b) His omnipresence in the story of "Hagar in the wilderness"; (c) His daily care, "giving the manna and sending the quails to the Israelites."

I should at first make no attempt at any sequence in the stories: they would be simply means for stimulating a feeling of awe and wonder, and then would follow, naturally, the story of Creation, simply told, and the lesson could be enforced that this same God, who is the Creator, is the Sustainer of life, "that in Him all live and move and have their being." (Acts xvii. 24-29.)

To me it seems that if we accept the truth which all thoughtful educators accept, that "the child develops like the race," then the religious development must follow the same lines: there must be a period of preparation before the child is in a condition to understand the doctrinal teaching as unfolded to us in the Old Testament. It is not for me to define the exact age at which this teaching is to commence, but if it is to be life-giving, it can only be when it comes after due and careful preparation. God unfolded His divine purpose gradually and slowly to His chosen people. The coming of the Saviour was long delayed, that man might feel his need of a Saviour, and we must follow the same course with our children. Hence our next effort must be to show through Bible history how God prepared the people elected to the privilege of witnessing to the world, and helped them to accept the teaching of the Incarnation, and to enter into the full meaning of the Saviour's life and redemptive work.

Acts of prayer and worship will come naturally as the child feels the need and sees what these acts of worship are to others, then the words used will be the expression of a real desire, and even when a set form of words is used, these words will be the outcome of the heart and mind. Church-going, too, will be a going into the more immediate presence of God and will be a privilege, and when the first custom of church-going is thus instilled, it will be difficult for the child to be irregular in attendance, or regard it merely as a routine.

The exact age when children should go to church must again be decided by each parent for themselves. Where there are good children's services, as there are in most places, it is well that the child should first be taken there. I say taken because it is the mother's duty as well as her privilege to accompany her child to church; the habit of sending children with nursemaids is one much to be deprecated. I am sure it is well to make children feel there are acts of worship, services which they are not admitted to, but which they will be privileged to attend later when the right and fitting time comes.

Further teaching of this kind is still in a sense preparatory to a systematic course of instruction on the articles of the Christian Faith and the observance of our Christian year, and here the first teaching must come in, and through the study of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ: let the story of that life be simply told without comment, and it will speak for itself to the heart of the child, and in thus speaking will reveal by comparison the weakness and frailty of the child's own life, and then there will be a real turning to the Saviour. His will no longer be a life to be admired, but one to be imitated; He will no longer be the mere friend and helper but the Saviour-guide, the Mediator between the child and God, the Atonement for whom all souls crave and yearn.

The teaching of Easter, Ascension and Whitsuntide will be readily be accepted; each will come with its message suited to the special and peculiar need of the time. Eastertide will tell of a resurrection to newness of life, ours by right of that greatest of all resurrections, when our Lord rose triumphant from death and Hell. Ascensiontide will be bright with expectation and promise of a future glorious return, and the lesson of Whitsuntide will be replete with encouragement as it reminds us ever and anon of the indwelling of that Holy Spirit, the very breath of God to inspire and sanctify and invigorate to newness of life and effort.

[Easter is the first Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon that occurs after March 21. Ascensiontide is traditionally 40 days after Easter. Whitsuntide, or White Sunday is Pentecost, which is 50 days after Easter. ]

There is yet one other most important influence for awakening the higher life, and that is the way Sunday is spent. Our first aim should be to make the day a really bright and happy one, a day of very real intercourse between parent and child. The cessation from the ordinary occupations renders this possible, and if on this day children are really allowed to enter into their parents' interests and to benefit by their direct teaching, it will do much to heighten their life aims. Still, on no account must the day be spent aimlessly; to walks and talks with the father and mother must succeed definite occupation by learning texts and hymns, looking at sacred pictures, painting or pricking texts, playing with scripture puzzles, etc. I should like to say a word about the scripture picture books; they ought to be carefully chosen. It is at all times a bad habit for children to pass very quickly from one picture to another, no impression is made really, and the habit of aimlessly turning over the pages of a picture-book is one to discourage, but it is distinctly harmful to treat scripture pictures thus; many lasting impressions are taken in by the eye; really good pictures, say of the "Child Jesus," "The Babe in the Manger," the "Good Shepherd," etc., teach a great deal, and when the children have been taught to use these pictures reverently and to talk quietly about them, they realise to a considerable extent that the subjects are sacred and not to be spoken of irreverently or lightly. Sunday toys there should always be where there are very little children, by that I mean toys specially set apart for Sunday; the thus keeping even a plaything marks off the day and begets a habit of setting aside one part of the week for a special and sacred purpose.

In conclusion. In all that I have just said, my desire has been merely to suggest very simply some ways of helping our little ones to feel after God, if haply they may find Him. We shall only do this, I am sure, when we remember that we, whether parents or educators, must be "what we would seek to make our children." We can only give to them what we ourselves possess. Words, however beautiful and apt, and a faith, however carefully formulated and clearly defined, are both alike powerless to call forth the higher life; but just as we are told that when the Lord God formed man, "He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul," so too must we breathe into our children of that which we have ourselves received, that they too may have life in themselves.

Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021